Review: Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage

You don’t mess with those trained in the ancient art of assassination Hokuto Shinken, or “divine fist of the North Star.” Even if you sustain a few strategically-placed blows and live to tell the tale, celebrating is futile. As Fist of the North Star’s protagonist likes to say, “You are already dead.” Boom. You’d explode into meaty chunks of person goo, certain pressure points on your body having given in to the revered Hokuto Shinken style. That’d be all she wrote.

I have to wonder if Kenshiro, the “Ken” referred to in Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage, had his way already with this mediocre brawler found on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, as it seemed rather dead on arrival. It’s almost a carbon copy of the very same Dynasty Warriors titles that developer Omega Force was responsible for, though it can’t even manage to operate on the same level as those mindless button mashers. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with mindless fun, as slicing through seemingly endless streams of enemies can be a blast, as long as it’s done correctly and in a manner in which gamers can glean something from the experience. And even for fans of the proliferative anime and manga series, Ken’s Rage fails to perform admirably.

Fist of the North Star has a fiercely loyal fan base, and the very first pitfall of this adaptation hits upon that sore spot with embarrassing tenacity. It attempts to retell a decidedly epic storyline spanning several different volumes of manga and countless anime episodes via short snippets of plot presented via cut scenes and mind-numbingly boring text epilogues similar to those seen in the Onechanbara series.

Rather than show players why this bad dude is wandering a desolate wasteland and turning punks into mush, it wants so badly to tell them, and this makes for dull, uninspired gameplay that keeps me looking away from the screen during “pertinent” plot points and also does a disservice to the classic tale so many know and love. Worst of all, it assumes any and all players are already familiar with smaller details, and attempts to explain them away tidily via scrolling text rather than let an excellent story unfold on its own.

As someone who was relatively unfamiliar with Fist of the North Star beyond the odd episode viewing here and there, additional research on my own helped to glean as much as I could from my experience, but most players won’t want to know or won’t care at all, leading them to miss out on an adventure they might otherwise enjoy. In a nutshell, martial artist Kenshiro wanders a future Earth shaken by nuclear war looking for his lost love Yuria and seeking out his adopted brothers who are rumored to still be alive. As a master of Hokuto Shinken, Ken is a formidable opponent, and thus goes out of his way to help those in need. Because of his astonishing moves and the legends surrounding his exploits, he is known as a savior of the wasteland. He meets several different memorable characters on the way, some of whom even travel at his side, particularly Bat and Lin, children you will meet near the beginning of the game.

Ken isn’t the sole focus of Ken’s Rage, though the title would have you believe otherwise. You will eventually explore other supporting characters found throughout the story, whose exploits eventually tie into Ken’s, though in a similarly dull manner.

Ken is a slow-moving powerhouse who gets the job done, but doesn’t exactly get in any hurry. I suppose he doesn’t have to when a mere punch can make a man’s head explode, but playing as a character who is essentially a tank and controls like one isn’t exactly ideal. Throws, punches, and special moves, take entirely too long to pull off, and when you need to break through a crowd of baddies this turns into a very tedious process. You will be mashing the same buttons over and over, whether it’s to throw an enemy, toss a barrage of fists their way, or to pull off a dazzling special attack. It certainly does look cool to make a man’s head explode the first few times, but soon after you’ll be itching to “skip” the animation or wishing you could play as a less lumbering character.

The first few levels as Ken are excruciating enough for this reason, but leveling up sufficiently and playing as newer, more sprightly characters alleviates the pain of being forced to trudge through level after level, completing rudimentary objectives (clear area A to advance to area B), and fighting off mini-bosses using the same strategies over and over. Rei, a supporting character, is a sprightly little thing and his peppy fighting style is leagues more interesting than Ken’s.

To fully “complete” the game you need to play through all story paths, which is about as much fun as cleaning your house. This is “Legend Mode,” essentially the story mode where the previously mentioned paths intertwine. And it may seem as though initially you are completing different objectives with different characters, you will replay the same levels and locations over and over again; this is a bit misleading and more than a little annoying, considering the fact that this is just artificial lengthening of a game that could reasonably be finished in a mere couple of hours.

Other playable modes offer a little variety to Legend Mode, such as Dream Mode, which opens up a story not seen in the manga for rabid fans to devour, and Challenge Mode featuring endless waves of enemies to slaughter again and again, but unless you’re that devoted fan with every single episode of the anime series and every volume of the manga, there just isn’t enough here to recommend.

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